Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 19 November, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s New York Concerts usually take place on a Tuesday, after the program has already been played three times in Philadelphia over the previous weekend. In a departure from the usual schedule, however, the first performance of this subscription series had taken place at the Kimmel Center only the night before; furthermore, there had only been three rehearsals.
It was all the more astounding then how brilliantly the Philadelphia Orchestra brought off Mahler 7, a difficult work, the least performed of his symphonies; it didn’t even enter its repertoire until 1978. This was a nearly flawless performance technically, with outstanding solo work from the tenor horn (Mitzan Haroz), French horn (Jennifer Montone), and the string principals, especially leader David Kim.
One only wished that Christoph Eschenbach had put all this orchestral brilliance to better use in this last installment of his traversal of the Mahler symphonies. While the composer himself never used the term “Song of the Night”, which sometimes is attached to this work, he once described it in a note to Swiss critic Ritter as “Three night pieces; the finale bright day. As foundation for the whole, the first movement.” Eschenbach must not have very restful nights. Rather than starting from a very soft dark murmur, he injected copious amounts of nervous energy from the first note, and he hardly ever reached a true pianissimo all evening.
Ritter was present at the Prague premiere which Mahler conducted, and he timed it at 79 minutes. Eschenbach stretched it to about 90, the pair of slow movements entitled ‘Nachtmusik’ becoming sluggish. Furthermore, there was a constant fussing with internal tempo relationships – breaking long lines into short segments by over-emphasizing cadential gestures, or ignoring altogether Mahler’s detailed instructions for speed modifications.
Only in the finale did Eschenbach finally abandon his interventionist approach, and ironically this structurally most problematic of all the movements came off best. There finally was uninterrupted forward momentum, and a well-paced drive to a satisfying conclusion.